Textbooks are Killing Literature

Patrick Welsh opines about the state of literature texts in USA Today.

[T]he textbooks are feather-weight intellectually.Take the McDougal Littell text that we finally adopted for 9th- and 10th-graders. It starts off with a unit titled “Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Hebrew Literature,” followed by sections on the literature of Ancient India, Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Ancient China and Japan. Then comes “Persian and Arabic Literature” and “West African Oral Literature” — and that’s only the first third of the book. There are still more than 800 pages to plough through, but it’s the same drill — short excerpts from long works — a little Dante here, a little Goethe there and two whole pages dedicated to Shakespeare’s plays. One even has a picture of a poster from the film Shakespeare in Love with Joseph Fiennes kissing Gwyneth Paltrow. The other includes the following (which is sure to turn teens on to the Bard):

“Notice the insight about human life that the following lines from The Tempest convey:

We are such stuff

As dreams are made on; and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.

Shakespeare’s plays are treasures of the English language.”

Both books are full of obtrusive directions, comments, questions and pictures that would hinder even the attentive readers from becoming absorbed in the readings. Both also “are not reader-friendly. There is no narrative coherence that a student can follow and get excited about. It’s a little bit of this and a little bit of that,” says T.C. Williams reading specialist Chris Gutierrez, who teaches a course in reading strategies at Shenandoah University in Virginia. For kids who get books and reading opportunities only at school, these types of textbooks will drive them away from reading — perhaps for life.

This is actually something I’ve noticed. The books are full of flashy pictures and photographs, but there are more excerpts rather than full works, and there are some rather odd choices in terms of what to include and what to leave out. My school actually uses an out-of-print text by Scott, Foresman — the same books, in fact, that I studied from when I was in high school. I do have some problems with the books, and frankly there are things I really like about the newer Holt and Prentice-Hall books. I doubt there is such a thing as a perfect textbook.

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